It might be because we’re in the South, or because everybody in the music business practices relentless diplomacy with all possible future partners and clients, but Nashville is one polite place. I daresay your average church breakfast includes more controversial, debatable statements than yesterday’s first-ever town hall meeting with the Nashville Music Council. That’s not to say that yesterday’s hour-long session was vacuous or trivial. Not at all. But if you’re looking for a great debate over the direction of Nashville’s music/biz/tech infrastructure, that will have to wait until a future meeting.
This open-invite, standing-room session at the W.O. Smith School was chiefly about describing and explaining the activities of the NMC, formed just over a year ago by Mayor Karl Dean. And indeed, Dean kicked off the hearing by explaining the why and what of the 50-member group of business leaders.
He said he'd seen councils or commissions helping develop music business in other cities like Austin and Chicago and felt “we needed to take some action” to make sure Music City continues to own that brand. The sheer economic impact and size of the employment base of music in Nashville was the other reason. It’s been reported to be $6 billion per year, so with Nashville’s Health Care Council as a bit of a guide, the NMC became a forum for ideas and initiatives that would “further establish Nashville’s position as the global music capital.”
Music business manager Mary Ann McCready has been Dean’s official co-chair for the NMC, and she offered up a rather inspiring list of the huge range of music-related businesses in town, right down to the micro-grain with custom coach companies and road case builders, as well as the trade associations and institutions like the Nashville Jazz Workshop and the W.O. Smith School itself. It truly is a deeper, wider enterprise than many understand. She observed that it’s a time of uncertainty and complexity in the business and that in such a volatile environment, other cities might be able to poach Nashville’s brand.
The NMC has had several all-hands-on-deck meetings, but most of its work has gone on in subcommittees that reflect its four priorities. A representative from each gave a brief summary.
Music/tech entrepreneur Mark Montgomery, now with Claritas Capital, spoke for the Branding and Business Development team, charged with enhancing Nashville’s reputation as a place to start a business or develop a music career. I was disappointed he didn’t report specifics on the survey the NMC designed to investigate perceptions of Nashville at this year’s SXSW, but I’ll try to get those findings in the coming days. He did say however, that the past year has been about “research, research, research” about how Nashville can better tell its own story, and he rightly wants that story to be about how creative people, entrepreneurial people and technology people can coexist and collaborate here like no where else.
Tim DuBois, the new top guy at the Nashville ASCAP office
spoke for the related subject of making Nashville “the friendliest, most supportive city in America for
creatives.” He pointed to several ideas in the works or on the table: A one-stop online resource center or portal that aggregates
all the disparate information about getting established in Nashville from
entities like the trade associations and the songwriters’ groups. Affordable
housing initiatives might include a hostel for songwriters getting established
or passing through town. They’re also looking at some new sectors poised for growth
like music supervision and copyright administration. And they may propose
“creative zones” that would offer tax or other incentives for new businesses in
certain parts of town. That was enough to get the policy wonk in me excited.
Tim DuBois, the new top guy at the Nashville ASCAP office spoke for the related subject of making Nashville “the friendliest, most supportive city in America for creatives.” He pointed to several ideas in the works or on the table: A one-stop online resource center or portal that aggregates all the disparate information about getting established in Nashville from entities like the trade associations and the songwriters’ groups. Affordable housing initiatives might include a hostel for songwriters getting established or passing through town. They’re also looking at some new sectors poised for growth like music supervision and copyright administration. And they may propose “creative zones” that would offer tax or other incentives for new businesses in certain parts of town. That was enough to get the policy wonk in me excited.
CAA agent extraordinaire Rod Essig heads up initiatives on the Live Music subcommittee, which is particularly important to the Mayor. He drew surprising and wonderful applause by mentioning Nashville’s big get of the year – the National Folk Festival, which begins a three-year run in 2011. As for new ideas, he pointed to a drive to get a new amphitheater (he hopes downtown on the old thermal plant site by the river), a 1,500 seat club for music of all genres, and a trolley shuttle connecting downtown live music venues to make a night out easier and perhaps cut down on driving-after-drinking. He also mentioned the upcoming Musicians Corner in Centennial Park. Overall, the goal is to have “the best, most diverse live scene in America.”
Finally, and perhaps most inspirationally, Nancy Shapiro, the long-time head of the Nashville chapter of NARAS, talked about her drive on the Education subcommittee. She said Karl Dean had upgraded her mission from developing the finest public school music education system in the country to the finest in the world. So no pressure or anything. But Shapiro spearheaded the hiring of a nationally known consultant to do a year-long assessment and plan for the city to bolster its music ed programs, for all the well-documented and right reasons. “It feels like now the planets are aligned,” she said. “Not only is the music community behind us, but the Mayor is so supportive and the community at large gets it. Music education may have the opportunity to reach their kids in new ways and develop self confidence and maybe (help some who would otherwise drop out) get through school.”
There were about fifteen minutes of Q&A, and even my friend and fellow gadfly Paul Schatzkin seemed unwilling to throw any firebombs or raise any prickly questions. But it was a good overview and a start at a public dialogue. Audience members were encouraged to turn in cards with their own priorities for NMC attention. Then, in another signature and entirely wonderful folkway of the Nashville music community, many of us repaired for drinks and a more intense and candid conversation about what the city has, what it needs and where it’s going.
My one insight about a missing piece of the NMC mission is that I think it needs a Broadcasting subcommittee, dedicated to cultivating outlets through which Nashville’s talent can be presented to the world. Nobody mentioned the loss of TNN yesterday, which I think is a critical turning point in the city’s history that has never been fully addressed by the music-making community. We used to have a 24/7 channel pumping the idea of Nashville to the nation and the world. Now we have the internet, an even more remarkable platform than cable TV, but only scattered, poorly financed channels of Nashville content.
I also think the NMC needs to (and will) really develop easy-to-access public forums for issues and concerns. It could be a wiki and a quarterly open mic gatherings where people come ready to mix it up and challenge each other. Warm and fuzzy is fine for an hour, but we’ll all really start to learn I think when a deeper and more candid conversation is set in motion.